It’s been a long-time coming, but Sam Riviere’s debut poetry collection is here. 81 Austerities, shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection, is Sam’s ‘passive aggressive response to the Coalition’s cuts’ and a companion publication to his 81 Austerities blog. Alex MacDonald tells us what to expect.
Sam Riviere’s debut 81 Austerities, a passive aggressive response to the cuts made by the Coalition Government, is one of the most exciting books of poetry I’ve read in the last few years.
It’s been the subject of admiration from the New Statesmen, Dazed & Confused and, recently, the Guardian praised its ability to ‘confront the inauthentic, both in ourselves and in society’. It has also been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
So, why all the excitement?
For a debut collection, it’s oddly been a long time coming. The new paperback is the culmination of Sam’s Austerities project – a regularly updated blog with poetry, video trailers, photos and audio clips around the idea of austerity. Here he first syndicated the 81 Austerities poems back in May 2011, nine chapters each with nine poems.
These poems, with often striking honesty, focus on the banality of life and the falseness of how we project and order our existence through the internet (with a lot of poems taking the shape of Google drop-down lists or Wikipedia pages):
All day I have been watching women
crush ripe tomatoes in their cleavage
whatever you can think of
someone’s already done it (From ‘P.O.V.’)
But also TV …
Can we think about getting the internet
reconnected & also a terrestrial TV aerial
going to cafés to check e-mail is so depressing (From ‘No Subject’)
… and the films we watch
that little nod beyond the screen
it ruins it for me
the actor is a LIAR with
a liar’s face a liar’s insistence
keeping his story straight (From ‘New Crew’)
Here Sam offers us one type of austerity – a harshness and severity – but in the tone of the poetry. But he explores this further.
The capital of poetry – imagery, form and rhyme – is cut and refused in the collection by the self-imposed austerity. For example, the poems reference each other, and often visit the same places and images. A narrator dreams of a great poem but forgets it apart from the start and the end, then tries to replicate it later in the collection.
Again, the line breaks are decided not to continue a rousing meter, but for an aesthetic – to have poems look inviting on the page as the peak and fall. This is explored self-consciously by Sam and in perhaps one of my favourite poems in the collection, he offers the reader an alternative to where the line could end by inserting forward slashes:
across the moonscapes of skate park you are 13 yrs old
& no longer allowed to play with the boys / on platform 6
wearing your amazing cape you are not in fact you
but someone else / while I’m a guy who mishears lyrics (From ‘My Face Saw Her Magazine’)
But these limitations allow Sam to address his subjects with wit and immediacy. A poem about a future girlfriend starts with “I would like to ruin your life / let it not be said I lack the necessary / imagination to be jealous” (‘No Touching’). Another poem, ‘The Best Thing You Can Do Now Is Do Nothing’ about the disinterest in helping others starts “I shouldn’t be so mean” and we watch the narrator offer up example after example of how he cocoons himself in his own world, satisfying his self interests.
What the 81 Austerities blog allowed Sam to do is to create a uniquely idiosyncratic landscape where he could offer up the poems in their own acerbic and clinical microclimate. Now, they’re published, and I think they act more as a passive-aggressive statement against the cuts.
To have them printed and lined in a book, to see Sam’s refusal to punctuate each poem emphasizes the reaction against the cuts. The denial of the ‘comforts’ of poetry is the only ‘real’ stance a poet could take against the cuts.
Sam also encourages a non-linear reading of the book. In the back he offers the reader the opportunity to shuffle the poems, giving them Tumblr like subject tags, so readers can read only the ‘Pornography’ or ‘Dramatis Personae’ pieces. This reordering offers different ways to engage with the work. This, alongside the book being the dull grey colour of an iMac, is an interesting cohesion between the internet and the printed page versions of 81 Austerities.
But, more importantly, having this book published assures that these important poems won’t be lost in the dynamic and shifting world of the Internet. It also allows them to be appreciated on their own terms, as bold pieces of experimental poetry from an already highly anticipated new voice in UK poetry.
- Hear a reading from the book, with Sam explaining more about the ideas behind it, on the independent publisher Penned in the Margins website
- Read more poetry from Sam on his 81 Austerity website
Alex MacDonald is a poet who lives and works in London. His poetry has been published in several magazines, including recently the Oxfam Book of Young Poets. He also runs the blog Selected Poems and ran the reading series ‘Selected Poems at the V & A Reading Rooms’, championing independent poetry presses. You can find more of his poetry on his personal blog Audience On Video.